Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Howard Zinning of America: tonight on the History Channel

(excerpts from a piece on Pajamas Media)

...The hype for the show has been everywhere. On the TV talk shows you cannot have escaped its stars hyping it. If you read a popular news magazine or a daily paper, you’ve heard about it. Its adherents all make the same argument: for the first time, you get the real American story. The point is not to study and understand the past, but rather, as Matt Damon told The New York Times,to show the past’s resonance for today, when the public is angry about banks and bailouts, and foreign wars. “That’s by design,” Damon said. “What they were up against oftentimes are exactly the same things we’re up against now.” Howard Zinn added that people rebelled in the past, and he hopes the series will spread rebellion now and “lead into a larger movement for economic justice.” Zinn sees history as a tool to be utilized on behalf of radical politics, not as a way to understand our country’s growth and development.

...And so we get to tonight’s TV presentation, portions of which we have online. Let me take a few examples. Let us examine Josh Brolin’s reading of Bartolomo Vanzetti’s letter to the court, proclaiming his innocence and announcing his willingness to suffer martyrdom on behalf of the truth. Brolin, of course, reads it with power. He is an actor. We expect that. He says he was convicted because he was “against the war,” not because he favored victory for the German enemy. Vanzetti says he is proud to die, since he can show there is no liberty or prosperity in America, that all that the rulers say is a lie.

Again, I have not seen the program, and I do not know what the Zinn-Arnove script says before Brolin reads his words. But I am certain of one thing. Viewers will not learn that Sacco and Vanzetti were members of a radical and violent anarchist sect led by Luigi Galleani that believed in robbery, murder and violence in their quest to overthrow the State. There was at the time anti-immigrant and anti-Italian prejudice; there was a blatant disrespect for civil liberties, and the Judge called the two “anarchist bastards” in court, revealing his own heavily biased point of view. But that is the only side of the story that the TV program will reveal.

Nor will viewers learn that there is substantial proof that Sacco was guilty of murdering a guard in order to steal a factory’s payroll for the movement. A few writers have cast doubt about this, but there is real controversy among historians and serious scholars. The entry in Wikipedia accurately summarizes the differences and the controversy among historians. It is not a given that both of the men were innocent.

We also get Morgan Freeman reading the powerful oratory by Frederick Douglass made by the great black abolitionist on July 4, 1852. The actor---in this video Douglass is played by Brian Jones---speaks the words spoken by Douglass at the Corinthian in Rochester, New York. Yes, Douglass at the time made clear that he could not give a tribute, since the promises of the Declaration were not those given to the slaves. He emphasized “the disparity between us,” since the Negro was not part of the “blessings” that other Americans celebrated. The 4th[of July] was that of the whites, he said, “not mine.” It is an attack against slavery, meant to acquaint those outside the South of the reality they were ignoring.

The 4th meant nothing to the slave, Douglass had said. He was correct. But viewers will not learn that after the end of the Civil War, Douglass---the most radical and unforgiving of abolitionists---gave up protest for politics, and acknowledged the leadership and greatness of Abraham Lincoln, whom he called “the black man’s President.” One must read real history, in particular James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican, to learn that during Lincoln’s presidency Douglass had heaped criticism after criticism at the President. Yet in the major speech Douglass gave after Lincoln’s death, on April 14, 1876, Douglass told his audience that reality was “more complicated” than it appeared to him and the abolitionists years earlier. “Abraham Lincoln,” he told his black audience, “saved for you a country” and “delivered us from a bondage…one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your father rose in rebellion to oppose.” He told them that he and others took into account the “circumstances” of Lincoln’s position, and ignored his straying and hesitation and concentrated on what Oakes calls his “longstanding commitments.” Douglass concluded: “We came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

The point is again that history is complicated, and Douglass himself changed positions and saw how America had grown and what Lincoln had accomplished, and joined the Republican Party and no longer stood outside the political system as a stranger. Oakes compares this speech with that of the July 4th oration. What would Zinn’s viewers think if this was presented right after the earlier Douglass speech? It might teach the viewer something about history, although not the history Zinn seeks to convey. As Oakes writes: “So Douglass shifted perspective again, this time to see events from Lincoln’s point of view, that of a democratically elected official with legitimate obligations to all the people.” He realized that in this light, “Lincoln’s record soared to greatness.” Douglass could acknowledge that; Zinn evidently cannot.

Change, in other words, came from both reformers and politicians, both of whom played a role, and both who at times conflicted with one another and at other times coincided. History is complex, not that of a simple struggle between the forces of light and those of darkness.

Of course, much of the video will speak only to those already convinced. Marisa Tomei reads Cindy Sheehan’s speech “It’s Time the Antiwar Choir Started Singing.” Since the producers obviously chose to include this in the speech, Sheehan more than any other figure has become nothing but a laughing stock. Her words are so crude, so repellent that those who watch it could perhaps be turned off forever. That Zinn and Arnove could include such a figure with the likes of Douglass is not only a case of bad judgment, but an example of the left-wing dogma that only an audience of fellow-travelers like those who applaud Tomei are part of...

The full Radosh text here.



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